Sunday, September 19, 2021

Everything Takes Longer in Japan

Southern Chiba in August.

A Monday morning scribble.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a newer international church plant in Tokyo. After the service I had several really good conversations. In attendance was a young American military service member and his Italian wife. They had been in Japan for over a year and lamented their inability to build any significant friendships with their Japanese neighbors in that time. 

The young man said the situation was especially discouraging for his Italian wife, who was used to much warmer relationships in her native Italy--and that Japan hadn't been everything they hoped it would be.

They understood that many Japanese people are very private, and while hospitable, it takes a long time for people to warm up enough to open up their lives for friendship. This has only been compounded by the current global pandemic and the Japanese cultural response to it.

Many missionaries to Japan find that even after years, and possibly decades, they can count the number of meaningful friendships they have with Japanese people--Christians and non-Christians, on two hands. 

Some missionaries, especially those with strong marriages and children to dote on, fare better than others with the relational isolation--in fact, children's friends and classmates often open doors to friendships with similarly aged Japanese non-Christians and people in the neighborhood. 

Single missionaries to Japan may have the hardest time with isolation and the discouragement and potential mental, emotional, and spiritual problems that come with it. This has been my experience--and I have seen evidence of the same in almost every other single missionary to Japan I have met.

In order to get past the politeness and pleasantries in Japan--the most important factor is time. Everything takes longer in Japan--at least when it comes to relationships, decision making, and consensus building.

Many missionaries to Japan come from cultures where attitudes towards time are very different than those of the Japanese. Americans want things to be instantaneous--we have grown accustomed to fast food, instant video streaming via Netflix, and drive-through ATMs. 

Talking with the service member yesterday, he noted how his daughter, a military brat, had a significantly shortened time preference towards making friendships because of how much they moved around for his career. Uprooted people usually do not have the luxury of taking a lot of time to try to build a relational network around them--which is one of the dynamics I have observed at play in a lot of younger more international churches. 

Tokyo is a place with a lot of churn--people coming and going, uprooted and unrooted people. Of all of the places in Japan, this is the place with the cultural and time preferences closest to those in the West--and even then, the gap often seems to be very vast.

The most obvious way to narrow that gap is greater mastery of the Japanese language. Unless you're lucky enough to make some friends with some bilingual Japanese, the odds of developing deep and meaningful relationships without a high level of fluency in Japanese are very low. That too takes time.

It has been nine years since I was appointed a missionary with Converge, and seven years since I first arrived in Japan. After all of that time, I am not where I want to be--my Japanese is still not where it needs to be, I don't have the meaningful relationships I would have hoped to have by now, and I have very little to show in the way of ministry successes.

It doesn't surprise me that some of my supporters and supporting churches have gotten the seven-year-itch. However, I need to keep reminding myself that Japan doesn't just have a reputation for being a hard place to serve as a missionary--it is a hard place to serve as a missionary. I knew that before ever being appointed with Converge. I had counted the cost, I knew there was a very real possibility that I would be in for a hard, lonely, seemingly fruitless season--at least initially. 

Please pray that I would continue to press on and persevere despite the discouragement I have received. Things take longer here in Japan--and I would hate to think of giving up just before reaching a season of breakthrough just because of how hard things are.

1 comment:

DBC said...

We are proud of your dedication and commitment, Ian.
Keep in mind, 2 Thessalonians 5: 23-24
"May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it."
Your friends at DBC, Carol and Steu